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National Security Research in Plasma Physics and Pulsed Power: Past, Present, and Future

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1 Author(s)
Mehlhorn, T.A. ; Plasma Phys. Div., Naval Res. Lab., Washington, DC, USA

The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) was established in 1923 to fulfill Thomas Edison's vision of a government research laboratory that could develop and translate scientific knowledge into effective military systems in times of war. The NRL Plasma Physics Division was established in 1966 to create X-ray simulators for testing the effects of nuclear weapons on materials and components of military hardware, to study the physics and effects of high-altitude nuclear explosions, and to perform nuclear fusion research. This paper traces the development of pulsed power and plasma physics from 1940 to the present day through a set of graphical timeframes that depict both the major geopolitical events and the major pulsed power facilities that were noteworthy in a series of 15-20 year epochs. Pulsed power research began at the U.K. Atomic Weapons Establishment, where it was first used for radiography. Subsequently, Sandia, Los Alamos, and Livermore performed pulsed power research for an expanding set of missions. The earliest facilities consisted mostly of single-module machines that had limited ability to synchronize and pulse shape. The 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative led to the development of technologies for directed energy weapons, railguns, and X-ray lasers. The cessation of nuclear testing in 1992 created an increased need for above ground testing including advanced radiography, nuclear weapons effects simulators, hydrotest facilities, and inertial confinement fusion devices. The Stockpile Stewardship Program, which began in the mid-1990s, saw the construction of several major facilities [e.g., National Ignition Facility, Z, Omega, and DAHRT], with increased power, as well as sophisticated synchronization and pulse shaping capabilities. In 2012, the Department of Defense (DoD) announced a strategic pivot to the joint force of 2020 and a rebalance toward the Asian-Pacific region. Looking to the future, a number of DoD documents describe the need to develop and depl- y transformational technologies. For example, the 2012 Naval S&T Strategic Plan emphasizes hypervelocity railguns, DE, the detection and neutralization of weapons of mass destruction, and the ability to retain access in contested environments, especially in space. Future military systems will require pulsed power that is compact, repetitive, efficient, and is thermally managed. Low-temperature plasmas and nonequilibrium plasma chemistry are emerging research areas that could impact DoD missions. Atmospheric plasmas are creating new opportunities in plasma biology and plasma medicine. The research capabilities of the rest of the world, especially China, are rapidly growing, and new ideas and capabilities will increasingly come from outside of the U.S. This paper explores some of the future challenges and opportunities for plasma physics and pulsed power research.

Published in:

Plasma Science, IEEE Transactions on  (Volume:42 ,  Issue: 5 )